Juvenile offenders find release in a creative writing classHaving already found that teaching creative writing to college students was a dismal experience, best-selling author Mark Salzman was even less disposed to try it with the young offenders incarcerated at Los Angeles' Central Juvenile Hall. But at the urging of a friend, he finally gave in. It was a decision that altered his life. Salzman recounts his experiences in True Notebooks, which offers a powerful narrative covering only his first year of teaching at the detention facility 1997-98 although he stayed on for four years before leaving to take care of his newborn daughter.
True Notebooks introduces a gallery of colorful young felons locked up for murder, robbery and assault, some of whom are now serving life sentences. They are a scheming, affectionate, curious and volatile bunch with plenty of stories to tell not all of them sad ones. Surprisingly, Salzman took to them immediately. Speaking to BookPage from his home in Los Angeles after he put his daughter down for her afternoon nap Salzman admits, "I'm currently a stay-at-home dad. My project is exploring this whole parenthood thing. I think that once my daughter is old enough to go to school, that's when I'll want to go back to teaching."Before accepting his teaching post, Salzman made a list of the reasons he shouldn't sign on at the hall. He had been bullied as a child and mugged and robbed as an adult. Besides, he wrote to himself, "[I] feel uncomfortable around teenagers." Despite these reservations, he says the students won him over with their first writing assignment: "I was a very easy sell partly because I was just so surprised at what they were writing about and the way they were writing. As I mention in the book, I had done some creative-writing teaching before at the college level, and it was frustrating because so few of the students were willing to write about things that mattered to them personally. But these kids were writing about their deepest fears, their happiest moments, their worst moments. It was so immediately interesting. They were writing with such directness that I just couldn't believe how much I was enjoying hearing them read. So from there on, it was pretty easy for me to want to keep coming back."Salzman recreates the events and conversations of specific classes from memory but salts them with generous samplings of his students' stories, essays and poems. As the students' and his own confidence grows, he involves himself more deeply in their lives intervening with their supervisors, planning and conducting a retreat, going to their parties, even attending a trial. In an especially touching scene, he plays his cello for a school assembly, opening with Camille Saint-Saens' "The Swan," which, he tells the students, reminds him of his mother. "[As the song progressed] I glanced at the audience and saw a roomful of boys with tears running down their faces . . . A moment later the applause became deafening. It was a mediocre cellist's dream come true. . . . For my next piece, I chose a saraband from one of the Bach suites. The boys rewarded me with another round of applause, but then someone shouted, Play the one about mothers again,' and a cheer rose up from the crowd. I realized then that it was the invocation of motherhood, not my playing, that had moved the inmates so deeply."The author whose earlier books include Iron ∧ Silk, a memoir of his experience as an English teacher in China, and Lying Awake, a critically acclaimed novel about a Los Angeles monastery reveals to his class at one point that his editor has rejected his latest manuscript. The students are outraged. "She don't know you," a boy named Francisco shouts. "She don't know you come down here and help us out, she don't know shit." Recalling the "dark pleasure" of that incident, Salzman muses, "There was nothing better than shipping off the manuscript [for True Notebooks] and knowing that my editor was going to read that chapter. In fact, I thought about asking Knopf, when they sent out review copies, to highlight that chapter so that anyone who criticizes me is going to have a whole army of criminals angry at them."The triumphs Salzman and his students achieved in the classroom were routinely leavened with defeats. "Generally what happened in the time I would work with them which, on average, was about a year was that just when I felt they were getting confident, they were given their prison sentences and shipped out." Salzman says his friends would ask him why he wasn't spending his time working with children who could still be saved. "The best answer I could come up with," he says, "is that life does this to us. We find ourselves unexpectedly in situations where we discover that we're kind of good at something. And I think there's a place for just following your instincts and sticking with something you have a positive feeling about."The affection he developed for his students ultimately persuaded Salzman to have children of his own: "I had a very happy childhood and a loving family," he says, "but having children was something I could never picture myself doing. I drew a blank when I tried to picture it. So I thought that was a sign that maybe I just wasn't meant to be a father, that I wouldn't be good at it. But once I met these kids, the opposite was true, even with all of their problems. I felt such deep satisfaction with our little triumphs. The bond that we did make was so satisfying, so inherently good and positive that I thought, Wow, if this is how I feel about these guys, think of how I'd feel with my own child.' And that certainly has been true so far." Edward Morris writes from Nashville.